Something Old Something New

Posted in Serious Fun on November 19, 2013

By Bruce Richard

Bruce's games invariably involve several friends, crazy plays, and many laughs. Bruce believes that if anyone at your table isn't having fun, then you are doing it wrong.

A handful of readers have contacted me, asking me to discuss a problem that their playgroup is having. This is a problem that has been growing for some time. I have been lucky enough to be mostly insulated from the problem until just recently. To really understand the problem, we need to travel back to the early days of Magic.

In the early days of Magic, and even today, new players learned to play with friends. Your friends would excitedly show you the cards they had, and would give you the basic rules of the game. You would play for a while, introducing more and more of your friends to your game. It was unlikely that you would ever play with anyone you didn't know if you didn't go to tournaments. It was just you and your friends.

Playing with only the friends you learned to play with, particularly in the early days of Magic, meant that everyone was relatively the same. Someone probably had more cards than the others, and someone knew the rules better than the rest of you, but for the most part, it was pretty close. The newer players and the older players weren't really all that different, especially once the newer players had been playing for a few months. There just wasn't all that much to catch up on.

When I joined my group of friends, they all had bigger collections and knew the rules better than I did. However, their collections were not all that big. There weren't all that many different cards available when I started playing, in Ice Age, so there wasn't a large gap to jump to get on a level with my friends.

Snow Devil | Art by Ken Meyer, Jr.

When you come back to the current day, things are a little different for the new player. When a new player joins your group, he or she is starting with a couple hundred cards and a moderate knowledge of the game. Even if the new player learned on Duels of the Planeswalkers, giving him or her a better knowledge of the rules than I had for the first two years I played, the new player is still going to struggle with a limited card collection and with learning all the card interactions.

The gap between "older" and "newer" players is no longer a short leap to the other side. With twenty years of Magic, the spread can be a chasm that is almost impossible to span. Given this spread, how do you introduce new players into your playgroup? Players who are new to your group are one thing. They may not know who plays what decks in your group. They may not know who the best players in your group are. They may not know who to attack first in your group. All of that can be learned very quickly, though. If those players have been playing consistently for half as long as most of your group, they will probably be fine. Those new-to-your-group players will have a wealth of experiences and your group will have to learn as well. The new-to-your-group players will have decks with cards you have never respected before but will learn to respect. They have a knowledge of the game and a decent collection, so they will be able to "hang" with your group.

Players who are new, however, are going to have problems. There will be card interactions they will have never seen before. There will be cards they have never seen before. Their decks will not be as good, as their collections will be smaller. If they are relying on Cancel, and everyone else in your group runs Counterspell, the new players will be running decks that are fundamentally weaker than everyone else's decks. This can be a problem.


Bridging the Gap

How do you deal with the problem? Never adding a new player to your group is not a solution. Eventually, your group will shrink and you'll need new players. Your group must be inviting to all, including those players who are just getting started.

Limit the size of the card pool.

My playgroup currently allows all cards that are Legacy legal when building decks for our games. This works out well enough in my group, as even those of us with larger, older collections tend to build decks of limited power. We want to try all sorts of weird theme decks, or intentionally use overpowered cards in underpowered ways to make things interesting. Rather than run Doubling Season in a broken combo, one player in the group runs it exclusively with Thallids. We've talked about possibly dropping the Legacy restriction, since it hardly seems like an issue with our group, but for now, it remains.

In your play group, if some of the players are abusing the size of the current card pool, perhaps restricting it is in order. Perhaps a Modern-only card list or a House ban on particular cards that are unfair to newer players. The downside to this is that you are bridging the gap by cutting off what the older players can use. That may not work out so well. A better option might be...

Limit what goes in the deck.

If the problem lies in the variety of cards and sizes of collections, one way to bring that a little more under control is to limit what players can put into their decks. Reader Mike Smith suggested a way to limit the contents of deck without wholesale banning. His group builds decks with some deck building rules they refer to as "Treasury." When building your decks, you follow the normal deck-building rules with these three extra rules:

  1. You may only use two copies of any card at uncommon.
  2. You may only use one copy of any card that is rare.
  3. You may only use four mythic rare cards in the entire sixty-card deck (or six in a Commander deck), and each mythic rare must be different.

This has proven to be an elegant solution for Mike's group. The newer players have fewer cards, but their decks have comparable power. The older players still get to use the cards in their entire collection, letting them build a variety of decks, while avoiding decks loaded with multiple copies of cards that will destroy their newer opponents.

Boreal Griffin | Art by Cyril Van Der Haegen


If you are like me, this option will not be a cure-all. I love building decks with my cards, so at some point, I'm going to want to use that ever-growing collection I own. However, playing Limited games can be a release of the constant pressure on new players.

With Limited, the advantages of imbalanced collections and knowledge of a 13,000-card pool disappear. Everyone is using the same set of cards for drafting or sealed-deck games. The variety available in Limited formats is almost endless unto itself. I don't have time to go into it here, but standard drafting, four-pack drafts, Rochester, Winston, and Winchester, are just a few options. 1

And if the cost of constantly opening new packs is an issue, Cube drafting is another option. I've discussed Cube in a previous article, so I won't go into it here, but I will describe a Cube variant another reader, Vejohn Torres, described as Community Magic. They use a shared deck, with at least fifty cards for each of the players involved, and a shared graveyard. All of the cards in the deck are rares, and there are no basic lands. Everyone playing draws seven cards to start. Any card can be played face-down as a land that taps for any color of mana.

This sort of variant lets one of the older players use a lot of his or her cards. The opportunity to show off some crazy older cards is wonderful. The newer players get to learn about these off-the-wall cards, without getting beaten over the head with them. If cards are problematic in a shared library, shared graveyard format, they can be rotated out of the deck. If players have enough rares, the cards can be rotated out on a regular basis, constantly providing different games and giving players a knowledge of cards they wouldn't have otherwise seen.

Shared deck building.

Rather than spend every session running one game after another, part of the evening could be spent putting various decks under the microscope. If a newer player is having difficulty due to the power level of the deck, going over the deck with the more experienced players is one way to help out. There are times when a card or group of cards can dramatically improve a deck, but someone doesn't even know those cards exist. Just letting him or her know there is a card that does exactly what the deck needs is often enough. Knowledge is power: share the knowledge.

This is something that happens in my group all the time. When two players are waiting for the game to finish, someone will ask why Card X is not in the deck. Many times, the player didn't know about the card or had forgotten about it. Within a week, we are all wishing someone had kept his or her mouth shut as a newer, stronger deck moves in for the kill.

Glacial Plating | Art by Brian Despain

Two-Headed Giant.

If the problem lies with imbalance, find a way to make things balanced. Put the new player with the most experienced player on a team. Working with a player on a single team, the newer player can see not only the cards in another person's deck, but also how that player plays the deck. Many players believe that if they just had more cards, they would win as often as another, more experienced player. Often, the newer player does not recognize that he or she simply isn't as good at Magic as the other player is. Working with that player provides the opportunity to see the strategy, as well as the contents.

Flipping decks.

My group has tried this a few times and I have really enjoyed the results. We simply swapped decks, or provided decks for someone who wasn't able to bring decks that night. This would give the new player opportunities to play with a wider variety of cards and the older players the chance to play with the decks to provide suggestions to improve the decks.

Play with new players in mind.

In my first-ever game, I used every green, white, and blue card I owned. I ran twenty lands because I was told that was how many you should run. The deck was terrible. All I remember about the game was getting a Rabid Wombat into play. One of my friends played an enchantment on it, as long as I promised not to attack him. Soon, the wombat was huge, and three opponents had guaranteed their protection.

My deck was horrible, but I got the chance to play well into the game, and had a great in-game experience, because everyone knew my deck was horrible. I wasn't a threat to anyone, so why waste your resources attacking me when you would likely need them for someone else? Rather than taking out the weakest in the herd, my group tends to go after the leader. In most games, that is not going to be the player with the smaller collection. This gives the weaker decks time to find their powerful spells and brings them on par with the other decks.

Finally, remember that the people you are playing with are your friends (or future friends!). We are all getting together to have a good time. Constantly beating down the new player is no way to keep the fun in your group.

1: For even more options, check out this episode of the Limited Resources podcast. (return)

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